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Establishing Application Security and Application Roles

SQL Server 2000

  New Information - SQL Server 2000 SP3.

The security system in Microsoft® SQL Server™ is implemented at the lowest level: the database itself. This is the best method for controlling user activities regardless of the application used to communicate with SQL Server. However, sometimes security controls must be customized to accommodate the special requirements of an individual application, especially when dealing with complex databases and databases with large tables.

Additionally, you may want users to be restricted to accessing data only through a specific application (for example using SQL Query Analyzer or Microsoft Excel) or to be prevented from accessing data directly. Restricting user access in this way prohibits users from connecting to an instance of SQL Server using an application such as SQL Query Analyzer and executing a poorly written query, which can negatively affect the performance of the whole server.

SQL Server accommodates these needs through the use of application roles. Application roles are different than standard roles in that:

  • Application roles contain no members.

    Microsoft Windows NT® 4.0 or Windows® 2000 groups, users, and roles cannot be added to application roles; the permissions of the application role are gained when the application role is activated for the user's connection through a specific application or applications. A user's association with an application role is due to his ability to run an application that activates the role, rather than his being a member of the role.

  • Application roles are inactive by default and require a password to be activated.

  • Application roles bypass standard permissions.

    When an application role is activated for a connection by the application, the connection permanently loses all permissions applied to the login, user account, or other groups or database roles in all databases for the duration of the connection. The connection gains the permissions associated with the application role for the database in which the application role exists. Because application roles are applicable only to the database in which they exist, the connection can gain access to another database only through permissions granted to the guest user account in the other database. Therefore, if the guest user account does not exist in a database, the connection cannot gain access to that database. If the guest user account does exist in the database but permissions to access an object are not explicitly granted to guest, the connection cannot access that object, regardless of who created the object. The permissions the user gained from the application role remain in effect until the connection logs out of an instance of SQL Server.

    To ensure that all the functions of the application can be performed, a connection must lose default permissions applied to the login and user account or other groups or database roles in all databases for the duration of the connection and gain the permissions associated with the application role. For example, if a user is usually denied access to a table that the application must access, then the denied access should be revoked so the user can use the application successfully. Application roles overcome any conflicts with user's default permissions by temporarily suspending the user's default permissions and assigning them only the permissions of the application role.

Application roles allow the application, rather than SQL Server, to take over the responsibility of user authentication. However, because SQL Server still must authenticate the application when it accesses databases, the application must provide a password because there is no other way to authenticate an application.

If ad hoc access to a database is not required, users and Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 2000 groups do not need to be granted any permissions because all permissions can be assigned by the applications they use to access the database. In such an environment, standardizing on one system-wide password assigned to an application role is possible, assuming access to the applications is secure.

Security Note  When using application roles, you cannot audit individual user activity. You can audit only the activity of the application role.

There are several options for managing application-role passwords other than hard coding them into applications (which is not recommended). For example, an encrypted key stored in the registry (or a SQL Server database), for which only the application has the decryption code, can be used. The application reads the key, decrypts it, and uses the value to set the application role. Using the Multiprotocol Net-Library, the network packet containing the password can also be encrypted. Additionally, the password can be encrypted, before being sent to an instance of SQL Server, when the role is activated.

When an application user connects to an instance of SQL Server using Windows Authentication Mode, an application role can be used to set the permissions the Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 2000 user has in a database when using the application. This method allows Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 2000 auditing of the user account and control over user permissions, while she uses the application, to be easily maintained.

If SQL Server Authentication is used and auditing user access in the database is not required, it can be easier for the application to connect to an instance of SQL Server using a predefined SQL Server login. For example, an order entry application authenticates users running the application itself, and then connects to an instance of SQL Server using the same OrderEntry login. All connections use the same login, and relevant permissions are granted to this login.

Security Note  Application roles work with both authentication modes. When possible, use Windows Authentication.

Example

As an example of application role usage, a user Sue runs a sales application that requires SELECT, UPDATE, and INSERT permissions on the Products and Orders tables in database Sales to work, but she should not have any SELECT, INSERT, or UPDATE permissions when accessing the Products or Orders tables using SQL Query Analyzer or any other tool. To ensure this, create one user-database role that denies SELECT, INSERT, or UPDATE permissions on the Products and Orders tables, and add Sue as a member of that database role. Then create an application role in the Sales database with SELECT, INSERT, and UPDATE permissions on the Products and Orders tables. When the application runs, it provides the password to activate the application role by using sp_setapprole, and gains the permissions to access the Products and Orders tables. If Sue tries to log in to an instance of SQL Server using any tool except the application, she will not be able to access the Products or Orders tables.

To create an application role

Transact-SQL

Enterprise Manager

SQL-DMO

To set an application role

Transact-SQL

To change the password of an application role

Transact-SQL

SQL-DMO

To remove an application role

Transact-SQL

Enterprise Manager

SQL-DMO

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